Lalibela

THE ROCK HEWN CHRCHES OF LALIBELA 
"the ultimate in rock-church design.... One is amazed at the technical skill, the material resources and the continuity of effort which such vast undertakings imply".
"I swear by God, in whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than I have already written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood."

This is the conclusion made by the first European to visit Lalibela -Francisco Alvarez, a Portuguese friar, who arrived in the 1520s on an expedition to convert the Coptic Abyssinians to the Roman Church. Over amazed by what he saw - perhaps because it so completely contradicted his ideas of European cultural dominance - he was convinced no one would believe what he wrote. 

Background
As you arrive in Lalibela , you won't find it hard to guess it was with great difficulty the proffessionals found a field to build an airport. The reason is clear -the place is too mountainous ( though there are much more spectacular chains of mountain -the semien mountain )You will have to drive about 6 kms before you arrive to the city (village ?) 
Walking through the village you will see the quiet even stern, mountainous landscape of the region of Lasta, where the peasants labour to cultivate their patches of stony fields with the traditional hook-plough.
Their little huts hardly seem to offer sufficient shelter against the cold nights of this altitude. Strolling along across a gently rising and falling field, you will suddenly discover in a pit below you a mighty rock carefully chiseled and shaped- the first rock church! 
None of these monuments of Christian faith presents itself to the visitor on top of a mountain as a magnificent symbol of Christ’s victory, to be seen from far away by the masses of pilgrims on their road to the “Holy City”; they rather hide themselves in the rock, surrounded by their deep trenches, only to be discovered by the visitor when standing very close on top of the rock and looking downwards. 
In Lalibela itself you will find two main groups of churches, one on each side of the river Jordan, and one other church set apart from the rest. The town of Roha-Lalibela lies between the first and the second groups of churches. It is situated on the higher part of the mountain-terrace on a vast plateau of rock. 
" At Timket(Ethiopian Epiphany. Ca. January 19) a vivid ritual unfolds before the spectator: here the dances of the priests take place after the annual repetition of mass baptism in the river Jordan. 
There are twelve churches and chapels, including various shrines. Four churches are monolithic in the strict sense(i.e. the degree of separation from the main rock is total); the remainders are excavated churches in different degrees of separation from the rock. The walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers sometimes filled with the mummies of pious monks and pilgrims. The visitor who walks through the intricate trenches and courtyards discovers at each turn new and surprising features. 
To make your understanding complete a few remarks about the architecture and history of the rock churches may be helpful. There are three basic types of rock churches in Ethiopia:
(1) Built- up cave churches, which are ordinary structures inside a natural cave (Makina Medhane Alem and Yemrehanna Krestos near Lalibela are examples of this style) 
(2) Rock-hewn cave churches which are cut inwards from a more or less vertical cliff face, sometimes using and widening an existing natural cave (Abba Libanos in Lalibela) 
(3) Rock-hewn monolithic churches which imitate a built up structure but are cut in one piece from the rock and separated from it all round by a trench. Most churches of this type are found in or near Lalibela (Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Mariam, Bet Giorgis, and others). Nowhere else in the world are constructions Of this particular kind found! 
Experts' Opinion
Thus, the “construction” of a monolithic rock churches ,which was done in the time of King Lalibela , was in fact an excavation. The actual method and order in which the work was carried out are thought to be fairly accurately worked out.
The workers probably cut free an oblong block of stone by sinking a rectangular trench in the tuff. From this monolith the stonemasons chiseled out the church, shaping the exterior and the interior, retaining stone for the columns, pilasters, beams and arches. 
The roof (e.g., Bet Giorgis, Bet Maryam) was probably decorated by the senior masons while they were waiting for the less skilled craftsmen to excavate the walls. At each level of excavation the finishing sculptural work may have followed directly on from the rougher excavation. 
To accomplish the work inside, entry was gained through the uppermost row of windows which are usually open and only rarely provided with filings. The level of the proposed floor was reached first of all on the western side of the church in the area of the main entrance. 
The execution of such a great project poses a number of logistic problems which might also be pondered when admiring the finished work. For example, where was the excavated stone and earth carried to? How many thousands of human carriers must have been employed? How were the stones carried away? In bags lifted upwards by ropes? Was there slaves labour as in ancient Egypt? How was an adequate food supply maintained and where did the masses of workers and skilled craftsmen live? And finally, what did the town of Roha look like at the period of the creation of the churches?
Answers to all these questions can be hazarded but a great amount of archeological research will be necessary before really accurate theories can be formulated. 
There are, however, some fairly obvious technical details to prove the high standard of technical knowledge the architects of Lalibela must have had: the churches in group are set on several levels, in order to carry of the heavy summer rains. The trenches serve also as a drainage system to the river Jordan. With churches whose placing conforms to the slope of the terrain, the ridge of the roof, gutter edges, the base of the plinth, are slanted in the line with it. 
The Inspiration
You may wonder about the period of construction and about the inspiration behind this unique concept. Authorities claim that the churches in Ethiopia have two roots: 
(1) the Axumite architecture with its places of wood and stone construction and its monolithic stelae, and 
(2) the early Christian basilica
The influence of the typical Axumite wood and stone construction appears to be predominant. Originally this consisted of stone- and- clay building material utilizing small stones and rubble, so that the walls had to be strengthened at frequent intervals with long squared timbers(the so-called “sandwich style”); these were then held in place by short round cross-pieces the ends of which became visible as rows of protruding and smoothly rounded “monkey heads”.
In the monolithic rock churches this type of architecture had no function but was sometimes imitated. Bet Emanuel with its horizontal projections and indentations is an excellent example. It should be remembered, however , that the famous monolithic stelae of Axum, imitating the traditional monkey-head structure of Axumite buildings, were already in existence at the time of Lalibela’s construction and show that the technique of creating rock-hewn monuments is of much earlier date. 
The foreign influence, apparent in Lalibela. i.e., the Persian ogee-arch, may already have been absorbed into the pre-Christian and early Christian Axumite culture.
The most important foreign model for the Ethiopian rock churches, which was not, however, strictly adhered to, was the basilica, which originated in Greece and was an assembly hall with a flat ceiling, a nave and two or more aisles. In order to let more daylight into the center part the ceiling of the nave was raised to allow space for rows of windows above the lower side aisles. Since the fourth century it was regarded in the Christian world as the correct shape for a church building. The model of the first Ethiopian churches very likely all date from before the time when the bell towers were introduced in the east and west Mediterranean. 
An important aspect of the basilica concept was that the church should be oriented with the holy of holies towards the east. The narthex (main entrance hall inside the building) being in the west. It is characteristic of Ethiopian churches that there should be three external doors-not less, not more-and that there are usually three openings to the holy of holies. You may be permitted to enter the church; permission to enter the holy of holies; however, is traditionally only granted to the priests serving mass. 
The most important piece of furniture in the Ethiopian church is the tabot on the altar. The tabot is a slab of stone or wood, currently understood to be an imitation of the Tables of the Law. According to legend, the son of king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Menelik the 1st , brought the Ark of the covenant with the Tables of the law from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, and they are now believed to be kept in our Lady of Zion Cathedral in Axum. 
The tabot are decorated with paintings or engravings depicting the particular saint to whom they are dedicated.The bishop consecrated the tabot, not the church, the tabot then bestowing sanctity on the church. In broader sense, the “ tabot “ can signify the sanctuary with the altar, as well as the whole church, which is dedicated to the tabot’s patron saint.
While you may in rare cases be allowed to see the holy of holies, the tabot is never shown to the public. During processions the priests carry the tabot on their heads, and it is covered on such occasions with an embroided or brocaded cloth. 
Authorities contend that the rock churches were not constructed all at one time, and it has even been assumed that the oldest are the most refined ones strictly adhering the Axumite style. While the first rock churches may originate from the late Axumite period and the newer ones in Ethiopia certainly were constructed after Ahmed Gran’s devastating wars in the sixteenth century, the most important ones, in particular in Lasta, which includes Lalibela, were all created during the Zagwe period.
The paintings in the churches are all from a later date, some originating in the fifteenth century, some in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Byzantine motifs are found in fifteenth century paintings proving long-standing contact with the Byzantine world.
The rock churches thus reflect the blending of Axumite tradition and early eastern Mediterranean Christianity. Yet they are an entirely new creation of early Christian art on Ethiopian soil.

Who was King Lalibela?

When we think of talking about the king we should also say some thing about the dynasty in which he became a king .In a nut shell the recent history of Ethiopia (which is more than 2500 years long ) , is a history of line of kings who could be categorized in to two main dynasties -the Solomonic and the Zagwe dynasty .The Solomonic dynasty is a dynasty founded by son of the famous queen of Sheba . They are considered the "rightful" Kings of Ethiopia .But the second, which is the Zagwe dynasty, is believed to be an assembly of "unlawful" line of Kings. And King Lalibela, who owned the vision of "constructing" these marvel, was among them. Kings from this "Unlawful" dynasty have formulated all kinds of legends to prove themselves to be the rightful rulers of Ethiopia. ( Please don't get me wrong , when I use the words "formulated " and " legends " I do not at all mean the legends were totally false or useless as a historical document to shade light on Ethiopian History. They have always given a clue)

One of their legends is put as follows :

"The queen of Sheba gave birth to Menilik who became the first king of Ethiopia from the Solomonic dynasty. But the hand maid of the queen , too, gave birth to a son whose father was king Solomon , and her son was the ancestor of the Zagwe dynasty ."

" Among the famouse pantings in Ethiopia , are those that depict these versions of the legends of the queen of Sheba .

The Zagwe dynasty had come to power in the 11th century ,one hundred years after Queen Judit , a ferocious woman warrior, who led her tribes up from around the Symien mountains and Lasta regions to destroy Axum , the capital of the ancient Ethiopian empire in the North .( Do not you worry , even if this queen have destroyed many valuable things there are many things to visit in Axum including the monolithic monument . Let me tell you one more news about Axum :- only in the vicinity of Axum there are more than one hundred archeological sites that are still in progress - we expect some thing to come out of this.)

The Zagwe kings ruled until the 13th century, when a famous priest, Teklehaymanot, persuaded them to give back the role of kingship to the descendants of the old Axumite Solomonic dynasty .However , before the throne of Ethiopia was restored to its rightful rulers , King Lalibela's powerful vision converted the mountain of rock in the vicinity of Lasta , in to extremely admirable designs of architecture. According to legend lalibela grew up in Roha , where his brother was a king .It was said that bees prophesied his future greatness, and Ethiopian falklore has it that bees in a dream foretell ,greatness,social advance and coming riches.

The King heard of the prophecy and became jealouse and tried to poison him . But poison merely transported lalibela in to a death like sleep for three days. During these three days an angel carried his soul in to a heavenly place of vision where he showed him the blue print of these churches which he was to build . Returning once more to earth he withdrew in to the wilderness ,and took a wife up on God's command by the name "Meskel Kebre " which means exalted cross ( one among the eleven rock churches is believed to have been constructed by her . )

Taking his wife by his hand ,the legend continues , the would be king flew being guided by an angel to Jerusalem until Christ himself ordered the King in charge to abdicate in favor of Lalibela . As an anointed king under the throne name Gebre -meskel ( servant of the cross ) Lalibela carried out the construction of these churches .And it is said that because angels worked side by side the entire work was completed with in 24 years time .

Then it came to pass ,as Lalibela conceived it in his heart ,pilgrims to Lalibela shared the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem .


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